Friday, September 26, 2008

UFO as a paranormal phenomenon


UFO, unidentified flying object, is used now to refer to sightings of aerial phenomena that remain unexplainable. Some proposed to use instead “UAP” for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, which is more neutral than UFO, as we do not know if we are dealing with objects. I prefer UAP over UFO, but the expression UFO is so entrenched in daily usage that it is easier to keep it.

Based on the research done by the US Air Force with the Project Blue Book, as well as other ufological research using a different set of cases, it is now accepted that about 80% of UFO sightings are actually explainable by either known natural or human causes. Another 15% cannot be explained because there is not enough data to make a proper assessment. This leaves about 5% of cases which are truly unexplainable. These statistics are not accurate simply because it is impossible to know if all sightings of UFO s are reported (and this appears very unlikely). So, these statistics are not to be used as “scientific law” but rather as a rule-of-thumb. UFO, here, refer to sightings that belongs to that last 5%, but that occur in groupings called wave.

A wave, here, is defined as several unexplainable UFO sightings occurring over the same particular territory, and over a limited time period. The key, however, to identify a wave is the social intensity of the sightings: UFO sightings are noted and discussed publicly. Hence, our definition of UFO wave is one that considers it as a social object. Otherwise, there is no parasociological analysis possible.

Paranormal and parapsychological hypotheses

The idea that UFOs are a phenomenon better understood as a paranormal or parapsychiological reality is not new. Here are some of the key texts and statements useful to understand the genesis of this approach.

One of the first to suggest this idea was Carl Jung in his famous book Flying Saucers: A modern myth of things seen in the skies, published in German in 1958 and translated in English in 1959. Jung saw the UFO phenomenon from the lenses of social psychology, in that UFOs are expressions of archetypes deeply engrained in the human brain. But he did not deny that some UFOs might be more than misperceptions, as they show signs of synchronistic behaviour, which in turn implies that they might constitute a psi phenomenon. Unfortunately, Jung’s thesis about UFO has been and remains too often misunderstood, as it is usually associated with the idea of popular rumours leading to individual misperceptions.

In 1966, a prominent American physicist, Dr. James McDonald, who was trying to get the issue of UFOs seriously studied by the scientific community, proposed that “UFOs might be
some type of unknown parapsychological phenomenon”. He was also dissatisfied with the hypothesis that UFO might be extraterrestrial crafts (a.k.a as the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis or ETH). However, he had to backtrack from this proposal, as he was facing even strong opposition from the scientific community.

In 1969, however, the paranormal approach to UFOs got a serious boost with the publication of Passport to Magonia: From folklore to flying saucers by Dr. Jacques Vallée. Vallée, who had already established himself as a serious ufologist, studied a series of cases describing encounters with enchanted beings and compared them with modern cases of close encounters of the 3rd kind (i.e., meeting the occupants of UFOs). He found that there were many similarities between them, and hence suggested that UFOs might indeed be paranormal or parapsychological phenomena.

The following year, John Keel, a writer and investigator specialized in mysteries, published Operation Trojan Horse. Keel suggested that something paranormal or parapsychological was an integral part of the UFO experience, and that maybe aliens were “ultra-terrestrials” or trans-dimensional beings. His book, however, was not well received at the time. In 1975, he had more success with the publication of The Mothman Prophecies. In this book, Keel relates the story of his investigation of a UFO wave experienced by a small West Virginia town, and the paranormal events surrounding it. The events occurred before the main bridge of town collapsed, killing many people. The UFO wave ceased shortly thereafter. Although Keel is a more nuanced in this book about the origin of UFOs, it is clear for him the UFOs, and the other paranormal events were premonitions of the bridge tragedy.

The same year, Allan Hynek, who was since the 1950s the official UFO researcher of the US Air Force, admitted that UFOs cannot be understood without incorporating their paranormal or parapsychological dimension (Ian Ridpath. “Interview With J. Allen Hynek”. Nature, October 4, 1975, Vol. 251, p. 369). Also in 1975, Jerome Clark published with Loren Coleman The Unidentified, where he clearly espoused the paranormal thesis about UFOs. It is to be noted, however, that he subsequently changed his mind, and became a key promoter of the ETH.

In 1977, Pierre Viéroudy published in France Ces ovnis qui annoncent le surhomme. This book proposes one of the best syntheses of the research done so far about UFOs and parapsychology, where he links Jung’s archetype, anthropological and sociological observations, models and theories from scientific parapsychology, and ufological material. He even conducted empirical research where he “provoked” the creation of UFOs and took some pictures of them. His empirical research, however, was never successfully repeated.

Also in 1977, Fate Magazine organized an International UFO Symposium in Chicago. The proceedings were published in the form of a book in 1980. The conference brought many “big names” of ufology like Allan Hynek, Jacques Vallée, Stanton Friedman, Jerome Clark, Kenneth Arnold, Betty Hill, etc. Two plenary sessions were devoted to the psychic dimensions of the UFO experience. Many interesting ideas were put forward. For instance, Berthold Eric Schwartz, a psychiatrist, proposed that Jung was right and that more serious research needs to be done. Schwartz eventually delivered by publishing in 1983 UFO Dynamics: Psychiatric and psychic aspects of the UFO syndrome, where he proposed a well researched analysis of UFO experience, using parapsychology as his basis and cases from his own practice as psychotherapist. Schwartz also proposed that there might be parapsychological expressions of the social unconscious that acquire for a time some degree of independence. David Stupple, a sociologist, also present at the Symposium, proposed a similar idea about the possibility of a temporarily “freed” social unconscious. Although, he does not appear to have pursued this idea further.

In 1979, Thomas Bearden from the defence establishment, presented at a MUFON conference "A Mind/Brain/Matter Model Consistent with Quantum Physics and UFO Phenomena", also using the concept of collective unconcious. The idea of a social unconscious will be discussed later at length, as it is an important entry point for parasociology.

The 1970s was quite fertile for ufology, and shown a fair degree of open-mindedness. Some, like Brad Steiger in his book Project Blue Book (1976), were even predicting that ufology was about to move into a new phase, implying that the paranormal/parapsychological approaches would become prominent. Steiger was only half right. Ufology changed (at least in North America), but only to become more than ever fixated with the ETH and “nuts-and-bolts” approaches, and sinking into ludicrous conspiracy theories, thus preventing any meaningful dialogue between government research establishment and the ufological community. The Roswell affair, first coming to light in 1978 interview with Jessee Marcel conducted by Stanton Friedman, and by a book by Charles Berlitz, The Roswell Incident, published in 1980. This situation was reinforced by, yet again Stanton Friedman, and his discovery of the so-called MJ-12 documents in the 1980s.

The poor state of ufology in North America that would emerge after the 1970s, as reflected in Vallée's comments presented in a previous post, reflects the failure of North American ufologists to remain scientific (i.e., their working assumptions evolved into a belief system).

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet

No comments: